The representation of women within Jude the Obscure [Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure (Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire, 1995)] is arguably based upon the social concepts of the time the novel was written. It can be suggested that the female characters within the novel are portrayed as good if they stick to the traditional Victorian way of life in that they repress much of their emotion and also, their sexuality. In Jude the Obscure, we come across two very different types of female characters in which it can be argued that they serve the purpose to make a comment regarding the roles of women and women’s sexuality within society. Readers of the novel are presented with Arabella Donn, a rather extremely sexual character and with Sue Bridehead, who is considerably more intellectual and seemingly mundane.
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Arabella is described as having “â€¦ a round and prominent bosom, full lips, perfect teeth, and the rich complexion of a cochin hen’s egg.” (p. 33) which as a result suggests to the reader she is a woman who is rather sexual. Further, her character demonstrates this quality by throwing a pig’s genitalia at Jude, which allows her to fit into this ideal by expressing her power within the hierarchy of sexuality by taking control of a phallus object and hitting a man with it, arguably emasculating him. On the other hand however, we have Sue. Sue arguably represents a more intellectual match for Jude in that she is less physically attractive and less sexual. Kathleen Blake comments on Sue Bridehead’s character and states that she recognizes “â€¦the conflict between Sue’s desire to be an individual and the “femaleness that breaks her” but sets he struggle in rather narrowly personal terms so that her feminism remains disconnected from a wider Victorian framework.” (p. 704) [Blake, Kathleen. “Sue Bridehead, “The Woman of the Feminist Movement”” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 18, No. 4 Nineteenth Century. (Autumn, 1978), pp. 703-726.] This portrays the idea that Sue is a woman that is trying hard to work against the social ideas that were dominant at the time; as a result this makes her a woman that represents what women should be doing during the time.
Sue is seemingly a rather attractive character in that she is portrayed to go against stereotypical expectations. She avoids Phillotson’s perception of her as a little girl, and Jude’s vision of her as a divine creature. She is shown to resist the traditional role of a wife, and further the domestic confinement that comes with being a married woman within the middle-class Victorian period. She complains that the Church views her as an object to be given “like a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal” (p.170). By leaping from a window in order to escape the sexual demands her husband is expected to make this suggests that she aims to rise above her circumstances rather than be bound by them. Although she gains admission to a training-school for teachers, she remains excluded, arguably as a woman, from university education. Sue sees the school as a cross between a nunnery and a prison, and she inevitably breaks free from it. Despite Sue’s persistent attempts for freedom, she ends up effectively buried alive as Phillotson’s wife in Marygreen. Her fate highlights the persistence of patriarchal injustice in a way that some happier ending would potentially not achieve.
It can be suggested that Sue is a rather modern heroine in that not only does she live with men without wanting to marry them, but she also lives a rather rich and intellectual life working alongside Jude. Hardy seems to be criticising the social conventions that prevent her from reaching her full potential not only as an intellectual but also as a worker. However, he also unintentionally reinforces some of these conventions in that he portrays Sue as rather hysterical and anxious and as a result this represents a common Victorian stereotype regarding women being very emotional.
It can be suggested that the most striking element about Arabella is her physicality in that being a daughter of a pig-breeder; she is described as “a complete and substantial female human” compromised by her “coarseness of skin and fibre” (p.39). Jude is attracted to her sensuality but yet repelled by her coarseness. This alone tells us a lot concerning her character in that she is considerably hopeful to intellectual and social improvement yet despite this she is seemingly driven by sensual appetites and inclined to submit to temptation. Sue is said to be “light and slight, of the type dubbed elegant”. In contrast to Arabella, “there was nothing statuesque in her; all was nervous motion” (p.90). She as a result, arguably embodies restless mobility within the novel which could be an indicator of modernity. Both women love Jude, but Hardy however portrays these women as two very different characters. In Julian Cowley’s York Notes [Cowley, Julian. York Notes Advanced: Jude the Obscure (York Press, London, 2001)] on Jude the Obscure it is noted that “Arabella is physically robust and sensual; Sue is delicate to the point of seeming ethereal, and she abhors physical contact. Arabella’s knowledge is purely of a practical kind, derived from the hurly-burly of experience; Sue’s intellect is directed to ideals and abstractions, detached from the world of human interaction” (p.75).
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In looking at this novel from a feminist perspective, it can be argued that Hardy portrays women in a rather unfavourable light in that Arabella is seemingly full of lust and she is also selfish whilst Sue is considered to be somewhat of a tease. Further, because of these two women Jude’s plans are ruined. The question is raised as to whether Hardy himself felt that these two stereotypes were an accurate portrayal of women within Victorian society. In Jude the Obscure it is worth considering that Thomas Hardy may possibly be criticising the Victorian idea of repressing sexuality and limiting the agency of women. By presenting the reader with a woman such as Arabella, Hardy is showing the reader what sexuality would be if there were no social restraints against it. Arabella is free to express herself freely and does not care what others think of her actions, she possesses the agency to gain power over the Victorian code, and also over Jude. It can be suggested that the contrast portrayed between Arabella and Sue give us a somewhat heightened sense of each character, however it can also suggest that Thomas Hardy himself is arguably more concerned with types rather than individuals.
Thus, the portrayal of Arabella and Sue within Jude the Obscure present us with two very different types of women within the Victorian period. The question is raised as to whether Hardy did this intentionally or not, but nonetheless these characters are the topic of modern controversy in that they both notably contrast one another. The novel shows us how loneliness and sensuality can prevent a person from fulfilling their dreams through the character of Arabella, whereas through Sue’s character it is suggested that when free from the bind of marriage her dreams too will not be fulfilled as she is of a lower status.
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